Bulls

Flowers still adjusting to backup role

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Flowers still adjusting to backup role

Tyler Flowers has gone a full week or more without seeing any game action plenty of times this season. For someone who has played in over 100 games every year since 2007, it hasn't been an easy transition. But that's the life of a backup catcher, especially one playing behind one of baseball's most durable backstops in A.J. Pierzynski.

"I take early batting practice every chance I can," Flowers explained after doing just that prior to Tuesday's game. "Whenever I can get a chance to swing, I need to do it since I'm not usually in the games too often. I have to take every chance for people to see me, see what I'm doing and see anything glaring that's going to make it more challenging for me to have success."

Flowers owns a .255 on-base percentage in 51 plate appearances this season, hitting a pair of solo home runs to account for his only RBIs. He has big power, which is frequently on display during batting practice as he peppers the empty left-field stands.

But batting practice isn't enough. Tuesday marks the 19th time Flowers has appeared in a game this season, and that lack of action has led Flowers to try plenty of different routes to working on his approach.

"It's a challenge not seeing live pitching more than once or twice a week," Flowers said. "I gotta find a way to duplicate it as close as I can to keep everything sharp."

That's led to plenty of early batting practice sessions, along with live batting practice with breaking balls and changeups. Lately, Flowers says he's been hitting off a pitching machine to simulate game-speed fastballs.

Going the pitching machine route is something Flowers picked up from Ramon Castro, who backed up A.J. Pierzynski from 2009 through 2011. During Pierzynski's tenure, Castro was statistically the best backup catcher the Sox had, hitting 16 home runs with a .758 OPS in 91 games.

"He really look time last year to show me what he does," Flowers said of Castro. "He was a pretty successful backup for a number of years. Being an older guy, me being a younger guy, it's not going to hurt me to listen to him and take in whatever he has to say."

Castro played parts of 13 seasons in the majors and only appeared in more than 60 games once. Flowers has previously said he doesn't envision himself as a career backup. But, for now, he's trying to do the best in the role he has and isn't thinking about Pierzynski's contract being up at the end of this season, potentially creating an opening behind the plate.

"Just taking the job I have right now and try to make the most of it," Flowers responded when asked about 2013. "Every time I get out there, do the best I can and something will open up at some point."

Bulls announce substitute broadcasters for first five Neil Funk-less games

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USA TODAY

Bulls announce substitute broadcasters for first five Neil Funk-less games

If you haven't heard, Neil Funk is cutting 20 road games from his 2018-19 Bulls' play-by-play schedule.

Friday, the Bulls announced that Adam Amin, Andy Demetra and Kyle Draper will fill in for Funk for the first five of those games.

Amin, a play-by-play commentator for ESPN, will games on Oct. 22 against the Mavericks and Nov. 14 against the Celtics. He grew up in Addison, resides in Chicago and also does play-by-play for Bears preseason games.

Demetra is from Oak Brook and currently is the play-by-play broadcaster for Georgia Tech basketball and football. He will call games on Oct. 26 against the Hornets and Oct. 27 against the Hawks. He has previous play-by-play experience with the SEC Network, Pac-12 Network and Fox Sports South.

Draper will call the Bulls' Nov. 7 game against the Pelicans. He is the Celtics' pregame and postgame host for NBC Sports Boston and an occasional play-by-play annoucer and sideline reporter for the Celtics.

The Bulls said they will continue providing updates on substitute broadcasters as they are scheduled.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.